Archive for January, 2013

Painting a Moving Target in Still Life

January 18, 2013
Completed 8 x 10" Still Life of Pepsi Carrier

Completed 8 x 10″ Still Life of Pepsi Carrier

“‘The truth, to be sure,’ [Nietzsche] once wittily put it, ‘can stand on one leg; but with two it will walk and get around.’  He was persuaded that there is no such thing as an absolute Truth, and that even in dealing with limited ‘truths’ the philosopher’s first task is to lift each one up and turn it around, like a stone, to see what might be lurking underneath.  And it was what lay below, in the inner depths of each spoken or written ‘truth’, that interested Nietzsche far more than the patent, superficial, often deceptive surface.”

Curtis Cate

Last night I wrote about my recent dual interest in focusing on one subject in a composition and in exploring the quality of the zone that lies between the highlights and the shadows.  I read with amusement the quote posted above, about Nietzsche’s conviction that Truth was something on the move, rather than static.  It reminded me of graduate school days, when I read with considerable interest the theological contributions of Karl Barth, who said that speaking of God was like painting a bird in flight.  You can only follow the movement with your eye, but you cannot arrest it.  And so, this afternoon as I finished up another small (8 x 10″) still life in watercolor, I immediately turned my attention to my next subject, and how I could work on these two new areas involving accents and half-lights.

I enjoyed the past two evenings, working on the watercolor posted above, and am anxious to learn new things with the next endeavor. I’m thankful that school is out now for a three-day weekend.  I need some time to explore

Thanks for reading.

“Thinking Out my Pictures” during the Hiatus

January 17, 2013
22 x 28" Charcoal Still Life from 10th Grade

22 x 28″ Charcoal Still Life from 10th Grade

“What are you doing, Mr. Hopper?”

“I’m thinking out my next picture.”

(Fellow artist asking Edward Hopper what he was doing, as he was spotted wandering aimlessly around Washington Square in Greenwich Village)

I didn’t paint or post to the blog yesterday.  A late-afternoon conversation at my school gave me much to think over, and I had a heavy academic load of classes to prepare for today, so all I managed yesterday were thoughts and musings about what I am trying to accomplish now with my art.  Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth (two heroes of mine) spent hours and days “composting” between paintings, and always believed that what they pondered would seep into their compositions in some fashion.

“Look until you become fascinated; trust that you will see something. If you learn to wait, the objects will slowly sink into your consciousness and they will acquire a significance that can be measured in color and feeling…”

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It was said that Edward Hopper carried this quote scribbled on a piece of paper in his pocket as he walked about.

I have posted above a charcoal still life that I set up in my bedroom while in high school.  The Art I and Art II classes featured still life drawing on a large scale, and I always wanted to work on one at my own leisure, even if it was set up on my desk at home for weeks or even months.  The art teachers let me take these objects out of their massive storage collection and bring them to the house for this project.  I would work on this composition in the afternoons and evenings after school, with my bedroom door closed, and Crosby, Stills, Nash spinning on the turntable (I still love “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”!).

My bedroom I shared with my younger brother, and so at night, I would lie on the top bunk bed and look down on my desk, half-lit by the hallway light streaming through our half-closed bedroom door.  The play of light and shadows fascinated me, but more than that, the dynamic of what was happening between the highlights and deep shadows–how would an artist render those zones lying in the half-light?

Leonardo da Vinci recorded the following from his ever-fertile imagination:

Remember: betwixt light and murk there is something intermediate, dual, belonging equally to the one and the other, a light shade, as it were, or a dark light.  Seek it, O artist: in it lies the secret of captivating beauty. . . . Beware of the coarse and the abrupt.  Let your shading melt away, like smoke, like the sounds of distant music!

I titled this post “Thinking Out my Pictures” because I have been preoccupied with two matters in the past twenty-four hours, while not painting.  One is this notion of half-light, a transitional gloom hovering between highlights and deep shadows.  I was taught that Michelangelo Caravaggio made use of tenebrism, a dramatic shift from extreme dark to light in order to capture attention from the viewer across the room. Leonardo, on the other hand, worked subtly between the lights and the darks, in a soft-focus effect.

In my recent observations of Andrew Wyeth watercolors, I have been intrigued by his dim interiors, where the overall composition is dark and low-contrast, allowing only a few accentuated objects to capture the light.  This is what I have wanted to accomplish, but so far, it isn’t happening.  I’m still trying to find a way there.

The second observation that has been holding my attention recently is this notion of focusing on one feature in a still life, and letting the peripheral objects melt away, either out-of-focus, or partially painted, or merely sketched in, or something–I want to find a way to focus on one particular object, and let the others support the composition, rather than fight for attention with all their details and contrasting colors.  Always in paintings, I have gotten lost in a myriad of details, wanting to capture all of them.  All the objects vie for my attention, and the viewers as well, so it seems.  This second observation got my attention because I’ve been reading from The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, and I was fascinated with his citation of Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Matisse on this subject.  From Whitehead, he quotes:

Abstraction is a  form of emphasis, expressing what one wants to without being involved in everything else.

Then from Matisse:

Superfluous details would, in the mind of the beholder, encroach upon the essential elements.

Henry Adams echoed my sentiments when he wrote the following about Andrew Wyeth and his drybrush compositions:

While in my mind I know that [Wyeth’s] reputation rests primarily on his remarkable tempera paintings, I have always personally responded less powerfully to them than to his drawings and studies—particularly to the studies that don’t attempt to cover the whole surface of the paper as in a conventional watercolor, but instead focus on a few elements, so that the image seems to emerge magically from the empty white paper, rather like a photograph that we observe in the process of development.

So, tonight in the Man Cave, I continue to pick away at the 8 x 10″ watercolor sketch I started night-before-last.  I’m not sure that I’m giving this composition my undivided attention–the details of today’s classes are still flooding my memory with good things worth saving.   I also have the TV/VCR playing old Woody Allen films (“Interiors” is now playing), and I’m mulling over in my mind these ideas about the half-light and the need to focus on just one object in a composition.  Meanwhile my eye keeps moving over these objects before me, and my hand keeps reaching for brushes, pencils, sandpaper, salt, spritz bottle, towel, etc.  I’m having a good time out here tonight.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll close with a few pictures of what’s happening in the Man Cave:

Pepsi carrier close up

Pepsi Carrier Thursday night

Man cave Pepsi carrier from above


Painting Past Bedtime Again

January 15, 2013
Painting a Still Life Late on a School Night

Painting a Still Life Late on a School Night

Good evening, once more.  I don’t have anything of substance to write at this time tonight.  I’m laying down the brush and taking some books to bed to give reading a chance.  But I am happy with how this still life is shaping up, and wanted to share it with anyone who has time to take a look.

Thanks for looking.

A Presence Emerging from the Loss

January 15, 2013
Still Life with Pepsi-Cola Carrier

Still Life with Pepsi-Cola Carrier

Many fail to grasp what they have seen,

and cannot judge what they have learned,

although they tell themselves they know.


How splendid to be able to enter the Man Cave, having finished tomorrow’s school assignments by 8:30.  Temperatures hover around 34 degrees now, and are expected to drop to 25 by the time I rise to go to school in the morning.  Some freezing precipitation may occur, but not enough to close school–nothing would excite me more than to be given the Gift of painting in the Cave all day tomorrow.  But alas, I daydream.

My first class in the morning will be Philosophy, and we will begin research on the Presocratics (a real highlight for me).  Hence, I dropped a Heraclitus fragment above to open tonight’s blog.  And the quote has an amazing application to my current practice of still-life painting.  I acknowledge that I have failed in times past to grasp the objects before me when attempting to paint them, that I have assumed too much knowledge of art technique, and used that knowledge as a substitute for a basic apprehension of the nature of the objects before me–Mr. Scucchi, my first of four high school art teachers, said: “I am not teaching you to draw; I am trying to teach you to see.”  That stays with me.  In drawing and painting, vision is everything, the alleged steadiness of the hand is very little.  And I laugh when I recall a line from the motion picture Lust for Life, when Paul Gauguin criticizes Vincent Van Gogh, yelling: “You paint too fast!”  To which Vincent retorts: “You LOOK too fast!”  I stand guilty of the same.  So, tonight, I am spending more time staring at this doorknob and Pepsi-Cola carrier than actually drawing and painting.

And while I look at these antique objects, I feel something splendid as I contemplate the worlds from which these came, a world that is no longer here.  In preparing for tomorrow’s Presocratic lecture, I came across a statement concerning four Presocratic fragments that Martin Heidegger translated and published:

Four fragments of early Greek thinking dominate Heidegger’s thoughts in the present collection.  Each is a truncated monument of thinking.  Like the torso of a river god or the temple of Poseidon at Sounion, each fragment conveys a sense of loss, of tragic withdrawal and absence; yet each is a remnant of an exhilarating presence.

Loss and presence.  What a juxtaposition!  Of course, I have spent much of this evening thinking about Steve, my recently deceased artist friend whom I knew for fifty-four years.  I have lost him, but in the quiet of the studio, he is present.  Words he spoke, his laughter, our discussions of what we wanted from our art.  It’s all there.  He’s still here.  A loss, and at the same time, a presence, a comfort.  That is a Gift.

Thanks for reading.  I’m ready to go back and stare at these objects a little while longer before sleep overpowers me.

Six Still-Life Subjects in Search of a Painter

January 14, 2013
The Beginnings of a Small Watercolor Still Life

The Beginnings of a Small Watercolor Still Life

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

With temperatures outside dipping to 34 degrees, I find the Man Cave still tolerable, as long as I wear this hoodie, and keep pouring the coffee.

I left this blog last Wednesday, boarding Amtrak on the following day to St. Louis to spend the night at my sister’s house, then drove four hours north to Hamilton, Illinois to say Good-bye to my friend Steve Mullins.  The funeral was difficult, but much love and comfort were offered, and I had the opportunity to visit once again with some whom I had not seen in over forty years.  Then it was time to return to St. Louis, board the train for the 16-hour trek back home and sleep a little before returning to classes today.  After an exhausting afternoon spent preparing for tomorrow’s classes, I finished my work around 8:30 tonight and decided it was time to re-enter the studio, set up a new still life arrangement, lay down the preliminary drawing, throw down some watercolor washes and hopefully find time to post a new blog.  And of course, the entire time I labored (played, really) over this task, my mind moved down a number of scattered paths.

I borrowed the title of this post from a 1921 Italian play by Luigi Pirandello–“Six Characters in Search of an Author.”  In the play, a director struggles to manipulate six unfinished characters seeking an author to finish their story.  As I search for a new still life arrangement to paint, I realize that I myself am also working to manipulate the pieces of my own life, my job, my relations with others, and now the sorting out of feelings and memories surrounding the friend we just buried.  Steve and I produced a plethora of scattered fragments–stories, shared wisdom, life observations–waiting now for an author, waiting for direction, for placement, for meaning.  As I work on still life arrangements, drawings and paintings, plenty of memories blister to the surface of the hours Steve and I spent in the studios of our high school, the makeshift studios in our bedrooms during those high school years, and then the university studios in later years.  We spent plenty of late weeknights together in the painting studio on the third floor of Baldwin Hall at Northeast Missouri State University.  Those memories are giving me comfort and warmth in the midst of this cold night in the Man Cave.

Thoreau wrote above about losing something earlier in life, and of his struggle to recover it.  None of us know what it was that he lost, and I suppose it is just as well–it makes it easier for us to pour ourselves into the subject he addressed.  There are plenty of things I have lost in my past, and have sought to recover in the succeeding years.  But I suppose we all are doing that–arranging, interpreting, re-arranging, re-interpreting our memories, priorities, life pursuits, and, oh yes, those New Year Resolutions.  So many floating, fleeting, flickering synapses of thought seeking order, meaning.  Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Thanks for reading.  I’m grateful to be back in the studio tonight, grateful for an opportunity to put my thoughts on the page, and grateful to know that someone else will read this and connect in some way.

In Memoriam: Steven A. Mullins. The Passing of a Dedicated Artist and Friend

January 9, 2013
"Old Bones Valley" first acrylic landscape by Steve Mullins, 1970

“Old Bones Valley” first acrylic landscape by Steve Mullins, 1970

I received the phone call yesterday.  My friend since the age of five, a fellow artist, retired teacher, athlete, coach, home builder, antique dealer, all-around Renaissance Man and lover of life, passed away.

I recall 1960 as though it were yesterday.  A family was building a new home up the road from where we lived.  Two brothers came calling on me as playmates–Steve (my age) and Mike (two years older).  Steve and I began first grade together, and my family joined the church where his family were charter members.  A year later, I moved four miles away, to another elementary school, but remained in the same school district.  We remained playmates throughout our growing up years in the church, then were reunited in high school.  Together we traveled four hours north to study for our art degrees at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville.  There, Steve met his wife and lifetime companion, Polly.  We went our separate ways, Steve moving to Iowa and me moving to Texas.  Only a few years ago did we manage to reconnect by telephone.  We talked of former days and the present.  I did not see this end coming.

I am posting some of Steve’s work that I was fortunate enough to have on 35mm slides.  The painting above, an acrylic on a masonite panel, was done when he was in Art III.  Steve never lacked for courage in trying new things.  Acrylic was a brand-new medium for him, and when he considered the difficulties of rendering a blue sky over the desert, Mr. Scucchi challenged him to paint and varnish the sky “whiter than white,” just as a hot, dry desert sky would appear.  He did just that, and then, in a final flourish, painted in abstractions of bones, skeletons, and wasted carcasses littered along the desert floor.  Finally, he applied several coats of varnish, bringing the luster to a stunning finish.  As he mused over a possible title, I reminded him that we had recently heard a sermon in church from Ezekiel 37, the vision of the prophet preaching to the valley of dry bones.  So, Steve titled this piece “Old Bones Valley.”

Caricature of Steve

Caricature of Steve

Six Flags Over Mid-America opened in the summer following our Junior year in high school.  Steve landed a job there as a portrait artist, and was instrumental in getting me hired a couple of months later.  There were caricature artists working in the studio alongside of the serious portrait artists, and one of them did this quick charcoal of Steve, capturing his likeness masterfully.

Female Pastel Portrait by SteveFemale Pastel Portrait by Steve

Steve was no caricaturist; he worked on the serious portraits, and learned to crank them out quickly and skillfully.  I had missed the training classes for the portrait artists, so he gave hours of his time training me, always patient, always encouraging.

Steve entered public education much earlier than I, and when I finally signed my first teaching contract, I phoned him long distance, more than a little apprehensive about whether I was up for the task.  I’ll always remember his encouragement:”You don’t have to be the students’ friend.  You don’t have to be cool.  The only thing you need to be is fair.  They will respond to you, if they know you are fair.”  That became my mantra, and has helped me survive in over twenty years of public school work.

I regret deeply that I do not possess a Steve Mullins watercolor.  He mastered that medium, and I’ll never forget looking at one of his fly fishing compositions painted near the historic Byrnes Mill dam near House Springs, Missouri.  I had not yet gotten the hang of watercolor, and I still remember marveling at his mastery in that day, more than ten years ago.  He assured me that I would “get it” if I stayed at it long enough.  Since then, watercolor has become my passion, so Steve, I thank you for encouraging me and believing in me.  You remain the quintessential artist and mentor.  I know full well why your students and athletes in your school adored you the way they did.

Steve was the artist indeed.  But he was much more than that.  Steve was a genuine friend and human being.  There are a thousand things I could record about his personality, but right now I just want to recall his big laugh.  Steve had a horse laugh, a contagious laugh.  And when you entered a room to the sound of his laughter, you didn’t have to know what was funny.  His laugh was funny.  No one could keep a straight face when Steve exploded in laughter.  I have met so few people throughout my 38 years with that kind of bottomless laugh.  And I wish to God I could have heard that from him just one more time.  I need it today.

Thank you, Steve.  Rest in peace, my dear Friend.

To all my friends, subscribers, faithful readers–thank you for all the times you’ve read me and encouraged me.  I will not be posting again until at least Sunday or Monday.  I depart soon for northern Illinois to attend Steve’s services.  Understandably, I’m not painting right now–there remains much packing, travel arranging and work details.  But I’ll be back.  Thanks for reading.

Art Still Has Truth. Seek Refuge There

January 7, 2013
Completed Still Life

Completed Still Life

The title of this post appears above one of the portals of the Saint Louis Art Museum.  I have seen it since my high school years, and it still stays with me.  The title, cut into the stone of the building to resemble an ancient Roman inscription appears as follows:



Today, I also have the late Rollo May’s sentiment on my heart:

Beneath our loquacious chatter, there is a silent language of our whole being which yearns for art and the beauty from which art comes.

Rollo May, My Quest for Beauty

Tomorrow, I return to the classroom, and not with a heavy heart.  Teaching has been my passion for over twenty years, but I must say openly that I have enjoyed the silence of the holidays, and the long hours of solitude in the Man Cave, painting.  I have also enjoyed the armchair with great reading and heartfelt journaling.  Tomorrow, voices will begin to fill my weekdays once again.  So, it is fitting that I finished this 28 x 22″ still life this afternoon, which has marked my holiday season.  I am glad to sign it and move it aside.  There is more art waiting to emerge from the abyss.

Kindred spirits who have written me the past two days, and conversations I have enjoyed over the holiday have stirred me with a host of new ideas that I am ready to explore.  And I resolve to paint daily (also read daily), and not allow my school responsibilities to eliminate what actually renews me day by day.

Thanks for reading.

A Juggler with Too Many Balls in the Air

January 7, 2013
Watercolor of vintage plugs and flies in actual size

Watercolor of vintage plugs and flies in actual size

Following a lengthy and delicious Christmas holiday, I returned to school today for a teacher work day.  Tomorrow the students return.  My classroom has all the charm of a frozen food locker.  My nose is cold and runny, and it appears that the climate will not be fixed today.   All my paperwork is in order.  Everything has been photocopied for tomorrow’s Philosophy and Art History classes.  I have enjoyed reading, writing, listening to the Voices and Visions documentary on T. S. Eliot, and now have added a couple of dry flies to my pair of vintage bass plugs begun recently.  I have only turned in half a work day but already I’m conflicted between studying for classes, reading for pleasure, blogging, writing in my journal, and experimenting with new subjects in watercolor.  I guess the only thing I haven’t tried this morning is playing my guitar.  Too many interests, too little time.  Life is short, art is long.

I am getting more comfortable with the nuances of these small still life forms, and think I am ready to turn the page.  I am not sure what kind of composition to assemble, but I love the looks of the lures and flies, and really would like to copy more patterns.  Perhaps they could become small matted original watercolors (5 x 7″ or so) as well as greeting cards.  I’m ready to pursue this new subject for awhile and augment my growing collection of “stuff” (good grief, I have scores of matted, shrinkwrapped watercolors stored in steamer trunks featuring landscape, architecture, vintage vehicles, Route 66 scenes and plenty of plein air experiments).  It’s time to explore new genres.

Tomorrow school begins officially, but my New Year resolutions include watercoloring every single day, even if only for short spells.  I don’t want this momentum to stall.

Thanks to all of you who have posted since I was “freshly pressed” yesterday.  You have ushered me into a new world, and for that I thank you.

Reeling ’em In

January 6, 2013
Watercolor Sketches of Vintage Fishing Lures

Watercolor Sketches of Vintage Fishing Lures

This day wasn’t as conducive to painting as it was answering blog posts with much appreciation.  Today is the first day my blog was Freshly Pressed on the home page of  I spent most of the day answering correspondence, with delight.

As night fell, and I began to decompress, I started toward my bed with a good book and journal, but suddenly thought: “No!  Toss out one more blog before retiring for the night.  And keep the streak alive, trying to practice watercolor daily” (one of my New Year resolutions).  I had not picked up the brush since this morning.  So, I returned to the man cave and fished out another vintage lure from the borrowed tackle box: a Lucky 13, to add to the Bomber I attempted painting yesterday and earlier today.  The results aren’t what I want yet, but I am enjoying the exercise and delight of scrutinizing these objects up close and personal, and I’m confident that any day now I will be rendering them more accurately in transparent watercolor.  I’m really intrigued with their colors, textures, contours, and the fluid lines of the treble hooks.  I have plenty of issues to solve as I work to reproduce them on the page, but I’ll get there, I’m sure.

I’m going to head for bed with my journal and copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Thanks for reading, and bless all of you this day for all the encouragement you sent my way.  You convince me that in blogging, I am not alone.


Musings while Inspecting a Bomber Close Up

January 6, 2013
Beginning Watercolor Sketch or a Vintage Bass Plug

Beginning Watercolor Sketch or a Vintage Bass Plug

In my recent watercolor Odyssey, I have wandered from the macrocosms of landscapes and cityscapes to the microcosms of still life objects, and now this single three-inch wooden plug of a vintage Bomber, popular in my youth for reconnaissance missions involving largemouth black bass.

A new friend recently lent me an old metal tackle box overflowing with the vintage lures that instantly translated me to my childhood world of fishing in mid-America.  It has been many decades since I recalled the names of our most popular lures–the Lazy Ike, the Lucky 13, the Hula Popper, the Jitter-Bug, the deep-diving Rappala, the hump-backed Rebel.  All of those memories flooded back to me in a torrent.  As though it were yesterday, I closed my eyes and recalled that hot and muggy summer evening at a neighborhood lake, where at age ten, I felt the jolt of a four-lb. largemouth bass slamming into my wooden plug with its three double hooks.  Five minutes of an eternity later, I was looking down upon my own landed lunker, in disbelief, watching him twisting in the weeds.

As I began sketching this last night, my eyes moved all over the body of this lure.  Every crack, every stain records a piece of its unique history of fishing holes, tackle boxes, garages, station wagons, tents, picnic tables, conversations and laughter.  It may have been dropped thoughtlessly to lie on the bottom of a john boat, its treble hooks snarled in a net, listening to the voices and laughter of celebration over landing a six-lb. bass, as cameras were being drawn from the knapsacks.

So many stories, ideas and images packed into a three-inch wooden plug.

So much lingers upon

a red-and-white plug,

bathed in white light,

beside the green box.

(O.K.–I am cheating off of William Carlos Williams and his The Red Wheelbarrow).

Thanks anyway for reading.